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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Naming Praying Our Way Into Discipleship - 01/31/2021

The Gospel writer isn’t messing around, friends.

We’re not even out of the first chapter of Mark yet. Jesus is baptized and immediately driven by the Spirit into the wilderness where he contends with the Satan. He preaches his first sermon: “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news!” (Mk 1.15) And then he begins calling disciples. And now he is teaching them, and all the others at the synagogue in Capernaum, with authority. His presence fills the room. All eyes are on him. All ears are tingling, as this nobody from Nazareth quickly gains authority with his relevant interpretation of familiar scriptures, something the other scribes and teachers have apparently not been able to do.

And that gets us to verse 23. We’re moving fast.

So today, we get to slow down for a minute, and pause on these eight verses (mostly) … the beginning of Jesus’ teaching ministry in the Galilean region and beyond.

If we don’t take some time with this fast-moving story, we miss a lot. First of all, think about where this teaching and first casting out of an unclean spirit is taking place.

When I think about Jesus teaching the disciples and the crowds that so quickly started to follow him, my mind’s eye often places him in the hilly countryside surrounding the sea of Galilee. When he is casting out unclean spirits and demons, I often imagine him in the outskirts of community, like the tombs of the Gerasenes where Jesus encountered a demon-possessed man shackled and ostracized by his people. (Mk. 5)

But this very first example of Jesus the teacher and exorcist of an unclean spirit is none of that. Rather, it’s in the synagogue. It is on the Sabbath. I for one hadn’t really thought about this before. I think it’s important to notice.

What it signals to us disciples, even all these generations later, is that perhaps our response to Jesus’ proclamation – “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news!” – our response begins in our faith communities, our homes, our most personal and intimate circles – our inner sanctums.

That makes sense to me on a very practical level. It’s a little like the idea that I should not stand up here and ask you to tithe or make offerings to your faith community each week if I am not doing that myself. Right? It would not be authentic. My authority as an engaged and committed person of this faith community would be undermined.

So there’s that very practical reason for our discipleship beginning at home or church or other places we might have very close-knit relationships.

I would also suggest another reason Jesus may point us to beginning discipleship in our inner sanctums: perhaps we are wise to look first to where we ourselves need to be healed. Maybe our unclean spirits and demons need to be cast out before we can come into our authentic disciple-selves.

The text supports this. The Gospel of Mark uses a clever writing technique to highlight what is key. It’s called sandwiching and it happens in this little piece of the story.

Jesus goes into the synagogue and teaches. His teachings are so on-point that he is instantly recognized as a holy man. His teachings have authority. Then his is abruptly interrupted by an unclean spirit that has possessed someone in the assembly. Maybe it’s one of the scribes who feels threatened by Jesus’ authority. Jesus deals with the spirit, casts it out, brings about healing. And then the story returns to the subject of Jesus’ authority, and now not only in teaching. Also, “with authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (an alternative translation of vs. 27)

And so right from the get-go, we are clued in. Key to Jesus’ teaching and authority is the ministry of healing. These healing acts of casting out unclean spirits quickly become a central theme in Mark’s story of Jesus’ ministry. And not just for Jesus, for his disciples too.

By Chapter 3, we learn that Jesus had to start adapting the way he taught the people who came “in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon.” (Mk 3:8) He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him. With a boat, he could sit or stand, just offshore, and he could face all the people. More of them could hear him and maybe they wouldn’t press in on him so much, crushing him in their eagerness for his word and touch. And in those crowds, “whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’” (3.11) And then Jesus cast them out.

Maybe the boat pulpit worked to some degree, but it apparently wasn’t enough. There were just too many people seeking out Jesus at once. He needed help and so he appointed the twelve disciples to be sent out also, “to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons.” (3.14-15)

Alright, that’s a lot of information. Let’s review what this pause in Mark’s fast-moving story tells us.

Jesus began teaching his disciples in the synagogue, on the Sabbath – the inner sanctum of the faithful Jews of his time. And they were in Capernaum to boot, the hometown of his first-called disciples.

We learn he gains authority through his interpretation of the scriptures. This sits in stark contrast to the scribes who claim authority only in title.

Following the clever lead of the Gospel writer, we also see that healing people is key to Jesus’ teaching and authority, including the casting out of a lot of unclean spirits and demons.

And, because we can look ahead to chapter 3, we know healing and casting out unclean spirits and demons is also meant to be key in the ministries of disciples like Peter and Andrew, Mary Magdalene and Mary Mother of God, you and me.

So, how do we cast out unclean spirits and demons trying to control us in our faith communities or homes, in our most intimate relationships or anywhere else? Here’s another clever thing about Mark’s fast-moving story. The lesson for the disciple is imbedded in the sandwich too.

First we must name these unclean spirits and demons. It’s a simple thing, but a lot of work.

Especially in the time of Jesus and his first followers, it was widely understood that the one doing the naming had the power and when the unclean spirit attempts to grab that power by naming Jesus, Jesus shuts it down.

“Be silent, come out of him!” Jesus names the spirit instead and makes it clear that something is controlling this person at the synagogue, an unclean spirit apparently threatened by Jesus.

We can start there too, using the power of naming something to take back the control it tries to hold over us.

Be silent, systemic racism and the institutions of injustice that grow in that soil.

Be silent, cancer and COVID, chronic pain, addiction.

Be silent, fears that make us question or forget God’s promise of abundance.

Be silent, my own sin and failures, guilt I carry and shame I let tell me I do not deserve to be alive, or washed clean in Jesus’ death on the cross or assured life eternal with God in the radiance of the Risen Christ.

Be silent, to a whole host of unclean spirits and demons trying to control us, trying to drive a wedge between us and God.

See what I mean … simple concept, and some heavy lifting required.

But I think we are meant to go for the heavy lifting, letting our faith guide and encourage us through the really scary naming. Embracing what the Psalmist suggests today “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Ps 111.10)

And then what, you may wonder? I did. Well, we go back to the story, because Jesus isn’t done yet. The command Jesus speaks when the unclean spirit tries to gain power, when this spirit is clearly bristling at the way Jesus has interpreted the scriptures, is also a prayer. We see other examples of this kind of command prayer in Mark, with all types of healing. Jesus confirms the importance of prayer later when the disciples have failed at casting a terrible spirit from a boy. So, they brought Jesus to try. After he succeeded, the disciples were perplexed. Why they couldn’t cast the spirit out of the boy? Jesus said, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” (Mk 9.29)

As disciples prayer is our starting place more often then not, and this seems no different. As disciples we are sent out to do this work and we are given the authority to cast those terrible spirits and demons out in the name of our Risen Savior.

And so, we pray …

We name the unclean spirits of systemic racism and its brutality. We pray for our people to find new ways that lift all people, not just some. We pray for the day when we will in fact be able to say “All Lives Matter,” because our laws and institutions and churches and democracy will clearly witness that.

We name the demons of cancer and illness of all kinds and we pray for those searching for cures and treatments. We pray and act for the well-being of our healthcare workers, emergency responders and public servants. We pray that we walk tenderly and generously with those who do and will deal with illness; and that we never forget that even when earthly death comes, we are commended back to the creator for the healing and wholeness only God can bring.

We names the demons that stir up our fears of losing things and familiars and what we expected; we name the demons that haunt us with false claims that we are not worthy of God’s grace. We pray that we learn to be more graceful with ourselves, courageous in the face of change and uncertainly, and bold in our love of God and each other.

God, we name all the unclean spirits and demons that afflict us, and we pray, that our lives are witness to your glory, so that nothing, in the end, is strong enough, eternal enough, unclean or demonic enough to drive a wedge between you and your people. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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